After the union representing Baltimore County police officers voted Monday to say it had lost all confidence in Chief Melissa Hyatt and to ask she be “immediately” removed, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. made clear he has no plans to do so.
“I absolutely don’t think there’s a need for change in leadership,” Olszewski said Tuesday, adding that he remains “fully supportive” of Hyatt.
The no-confidence vote by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, in a meeting closed to the media, was a rare step in county history and a striking statement of displeasure in the police department’s top leadership by its rank-and-file members.
In a letter to Olszewski released following the vote, FOP President Dave Folderauer laid out a series of reasons provided by members at Monday’s meeting, ranging from a refusal to take questions to her efforts to combat crime in the county. Together, Folderauer wrote, it led to the members losing “all faith and confidence” in Hyatt.
The chief could be removed by the county executive, under the Baltimore County charter, which grants the executive the power to remove agency leaders in the executive branch. The County Council doesn’t have that authority. Hyatt’s current employment contract expires in early December.
Hyatt, 46, became the department’s first female chief in 2019, leading an agency with nearly 2,000 sworn employees.
She said in a statement after the FOP’s vote that she “will not be deterred or distracted” and remains committed to leading the department.
Hyatt added that she had a productive working relationship with the prior union leaders, but “a small group of my critics from within the current police union leadership” encouraged members to request her removal from office.
“While I am disappointed to learn about this effort, I will not be discouraged,” Hyatt said.
Olszewski suggested Hyatt’s efforts to spur change at the police agency might have led to dissatisfaction among the officers.
“We hired her intentionally to bring some changes to the department, and obviously, anytime there are some changes in a large organization, there will be some individuals who aren’t on board,” said Olszewski, pointing specifically to the agency’s recent emphasis on diversity, data-driven policing and community relationships. “These were not necessarily priorities in the years past, but they have been here.”
The Democratic county executive is seeking reelection to a second term.
The FOP’s letter outlining reasons for the vote of no confidence claimed Hyatt had not made herself accessible to the union’s members, had displayed an unwillingness to work directly with FOP leadership on “underlying issues” and had hired leaders from outside of the county, which the letter argues led to a “lack of experience and knowledge concerning the history of the agency.”
The letter added that Hyatt had “failed to adequately address the rise in crime in Baltimore County.” And it cited at least five sexual harassment or hostile work environment cases “involving members of the Executive Corps.” Those cases have not been made public.
It also lists two specific decisions the FOP previously objected to: One is a vote Hyatt made in her role on the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission regarding a disciplinary process that the FOP argues would have “eliminated due process trial boards” for Maryland law enforcement.
The other is the reading of Sgt. Tia Bynum’s name at a recent memorial service for fallen police. The FOP called Bynum a “disgraced member of our department” and called her inclusion a “final blow to the morale” of the department.
Bynum was accused of being an accomplice to ex-Baltimore County officer Robert Vicosa in the kidnapping of his two daughters that led law enforcement on a four-day search in November. She, Vicosa and his two daughters were found dead last year in what officials have described as a murder-suicide by Vicosa.
Folderauer, the union president, said the no-confidence vote was a voice vote, meaning there’s no official tally. But he said it was unanimous and estimated there were well over 100 members present.
In Hyatt’s response, she highlighted her focus on crime reduction, meaningful community relationships, accountability, employee wellness, and offering the best training and equipment to officers.
Hyatt said members of the department can offer feedback and communicate through focus groups, listening sessions and open forums. She also said she’d created a police union liaison and email account for officers to reach her.
“It is a challenging time to work in the law enforcement profession,” Hyatt said. “I am extremely proud of the exceptional work that our members do on a daily basis, as we navigate together through unprecedented police reform legislation and a global pandemic.”
Olszewski nominated Hyatt for the position of chief in May 2019 following a national search. He praised her at the time as community-oriented and innovative, and said he hoped the department would embrace community policing, strengthen diversity and improve transparency under her leadership.
Her three years leading the department have included the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a nationwide racial reckoning following the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis that spurred some local police reforms.
In recent years, the agency has faced scrutiny for the racial disparities in its traffic stops and several high-profile police killings. It also saw a record number of homicides in 2021, a pace that has slowed in 2022.
Hyatt noted at a May 12 budget hearing that, of last year’s record killings, 20% were behavioral health-related incidents, almost 20% were domestic or family disputes, and an additional 15% were arguments that escalated into violence. The county also saw two “multivictim casualty events,” she said.
“It was just a really difficult year for us,” Hyatt said.
Before joining the county department, Hyatt had worked for the Baltimore City Police for roughly two decades, including as a sergeant on the tactical team and as chief of patrol and chief of special operations. She also worked as vice president for security at the Johns Hopkins University.
Hyatt grew up in Randallstown, the daughter of a Baltimore Police commander. She collects a $286,110 salary as chief.
Supporters, including former city police commissioner Kevin Davis, said at the time of Hyatt’s nomination that she had a relentless work ethic and that she’d “been through the fire.”
But some were dismayed an internal candidate wasn’t selected.
The Blue Guardians group, for instance, which represents minority officers supported a county police colonel for the chief position and wanted to see Olszewski appoint the county’s first Black chief. The group’s then-president said the city didn’t “represent the blue-ribbon standard on policing.”
The president of the county FOP at the time, Cole Weston, said some in the department felt strongly an internal candidate should have been chosen, but that he thought the county could benefit from an outside viewpoint.
Olszewski named women to run county public safety agencies, including police, fire, county corrections and the 911 call center. He said at a news conference that he was “thrilled” by the “all-female public safety leadership team.”
Hyatt replaced Chief Terrance Sheridan, who retired from the agency. Sheridan had returned to lead Baltimore County Police in 2017, when Chief Jim Johnson retired. Johnson’s retirement came as the department was in the spotlight over the deaths of Korryn Gaines and Tawon Boyd and its handling of sexual assault cases.
Johnson had taken over from Sheridan, who served from 1996 to 2007.
The county FOP called before for the replacement of a police chief, though the no-confidence vote appears unprecedented.
In early 1977, the county chapter of the FOP called for the county executive’s administration to replace Chief Joseph R. Gallen, and issued a verbal list of allegations of mismanagement, according to Baltimore Sun reporting. But the county executive, Theodore G. Venetoulis, declined to fire the police chief because he said the allegations didn’t warrant it; the chief announced months later that he would resign.
Some onlookers have called Monday’s FOP vote “troubling.”
Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, said Tuesday that the most valuable resource is “people,” and that part of the chief’s job is to lead the men and women of the department.
“For the rank and file to ... have a vote of no confidence is troubling to me,” Jones said, adding that he hopes “they can get together and iron out any issues that they have.”
“And it sounds like there’s a lot,” he said.
The Morning Sun
Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich and librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.